Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Pimp'n Out" the Students, Helping, or Both?

Many law schools have externship programs -- students work elsewhere in a law related jobs and receive credit. Schools divide on whether the externship must be in a non profit context. This question is, perhaps, more pressing, when the issue arises in the context of public schools.

If public law schools are based on a "public good" rationale and are not simply a means of redistributing income from taxpayers to people who do well on the LSAT, it is not easy to see the rationale for saying, for example, to Exxon, please let our students work for you for nothing and we will give them credit toward graduation. Does this mean we are paying students to work for for-profit entities and subsidizing those firms at the same time? After all, if the students do something, anything, that has market value, how can this not be viewed as a form of subsidization? "Pimp'n out" the students, as one friend describes it, is hard justify.

This seemed pretty simple to me. Why would a state school pay students to work for firms whose interests might be opposed to those of the State paying for the education of the students? And, having subsidized one for-profit firm, is the School obligated to subsidize others, particularly their opponents, equally. I mentioned this to another friend who told me, correctly, I was way behind on the issue. Most of the students are in law school in order to do exactly what the for-profit externship permits -- working for firms that may or may not have any connection to the public interest. In effect, the for-profit externship is just a continuation of what law schools, including public law schools, do anyway -- subsidize the private sector. (You never hear much about this but shouldn't it be a concern to both "liberals" and conservatives?)

I was way behind in another way. Relatively affluent students have always been able to work for for-profit firms in the summer. Getting paid was not that important. The students who could not participate were those who needed money even if it meant delivering pizza. By giving credit to these students, they are also able to participate in an activity that actually may help them hone their legal skills. I note this because no one is claiming that the for-profit experience is not a valuable one for students. Unfortunately, without a public service requirement, the skills acquired are not likely to be used to pay back the taxpayers who paid for the legal education.

It's not a simple matter.


Anonymous said...

My inclination is that the resources necessary to supervise and manage the externs may cancel out any productivity that the externs create.

It is also worth noting that some non-profit entities commonly bring actions against states; the states then use state resources to defend against these actions. This could also be viewed as state subsidization of entities that do not have interests aligned with the state.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Interesting comments. Thanks. If they do cancel out their productivity (which would imply far greater supervision than they get) why would a for-profit firm participate.

Yes on your second point, the State very clearly is not always right and a great deal of "public service" work is designed to correct what the State is doing. I am not sure I would equate that with generating a profit for a defineable group of shareholders. At least in theory the State represents the interests of a greater number of people than Exxon, Microsoft, Shell, Enron, Walmart, etc.

Anonymous said...

As far as my first point goes, I am not sure if I am correct or not. It just seems that if students were doing substantive legal work such as research, the supervising attorneys would need to spend quite a bit of time reviewing it to make sure it is correct. I've always wondered about the large firms that pay first and second year students $2500 a week. It seems that they may be paying that much with the goal of retaining the best and the brightest as first year associates. I highly doubt that these summer interns are producing anywhere close to that much. As far as the externs though, the costs are $0 as far as salary, so the only costs is human capital, and this may produce a net gain for them. The only reason firms would participate if they weren't getting something out of it is if they have an eye towards the future of retaining these people later on. If this pans out like they plan, the long term benefit could obviously be positive, even if the short-term is not.

I certainly wouldn't say that any non-profit work is creating an economic profit for a definable group of shareholders. However, some non-profit work benefits a small groups that have interests that may not align with the common interests of tax payers (the people paying tuition for public law school students). If you believe that state governments are acting in a way that is consistent with the majority of the voters/tax payers of the state, there is a great possibility that the people footing the bill for students at public schools interests are not aligned with the non-profits that are suing the state. Even if these non-profits are winning in court, it is possible that the majority of citizens in a state aren't in favor of those decisions, especially in federal court and state courts where the judiciary is immune from election/political pressure. I suppose part of this analysis hinges on what you define the "public/state interests" as, and whether that differs from the interests of the people that pay for law students to go to school.

I have no doubt, however, that an extern working for a state entity is helping to further the interests of the state.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Good point and I can't help but note the irony of the fact that the principal way in which the State may not be acting in the interest of its citizens is in the subsidization of the aquisition of human capital the benefits of which will be internalized by those subsidized. Why not write a monthly check to florists? In fact, I am not sure I see a principled difference between that and current government bailouts. As I note in my blog, I am puzzle by the fact that neither liberals nor conservatives question what might be fairly regarded a a form of welfare to the students and the corporation and big law firms that hire them.

But it is what it is and perhaps the answer is not to make the profit/non-profit distinction but to look closely at exactly what the student will be doing. Do professors agreeing to supervise externships give a blank check to the for-profit and non-profit entities or do they have some control over the actual projects to which students are assigned. This sounds impractical.

So, for me, the only basis to support for-profit externship is that it permit less affluence students to do what the rich kids are doing anyway.

But then my more general default position is that Law Schools charge students the full cost of tuition and then subsidize on the basis of need or a post graduation public service commitment.

Anonymous said...

This is a different "Anonymous".

I'm always puzzled when someone claims that students at public law schools receive a subsidized education. It might be true in some cases, but to say so requires a deeper analysis of the budget and faculty output of a given law school.

How much time do faculty spend engaging in scholarship as opposed to teaching? I am sure it varies from school to school. At any rate, the benefits arising from legal scholarship largely do not go to students. (Actually, the overwhelmingly majority of legal scholarship is never cited by any court and provides no benefit to anyone).

If a given faculty spends 70% of their time engaging in legal scholarship and 30% of their time engaging in teaching, then students are only receiving a subsidized education if the school gets less than 30% of its budget from tuition. Indeed, if the school gets more than 30% of its budget from tuition, students (along with taxpayers) are actually subsidizing legal scholarship.

I don't know how this calculation works out at different schools. But, I don't accept the claim that students at public law schools get a subsidized education as self-evident.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

When I wrote this blog I did not anticipate so many insightful observations. I understand your 70/30 analysis but I think most would agree it does not work that way for two reasons. First, at least ideally, scholarship and teaching are not as separate as you suggest. Even people who do not write are constantly reading and researching in order to do better in the classroom. The actual process of putting it down on paper is only part of the effort. Following your logic, in fact, professors who do not write would be paid 30% of the norm, but in fact those who do not write are often engaged in research in order to simply keep up with their fields. Having said that, I agree that some of the research is not really useful for anything.

Your 70/30 analysis does not work for another reason although you are to some extent preaching to the choir as to the ultimate usefulness of research. A School's reputation is largely determined not at all by teaching but by scholarship and it is the reputation of the School that determines placement and the market value of your degree. You might compare placement rates and starting salaries of students where little research is done with that of students where the faculty is highly productive.

In effect, taxpapers pay law professors to grind it out so that students can sell their education for higher prices.

I know there appears to be no logical connection between the thousands of pages law professors churn out and how much law you know but there is a big connection between the pages and the market value of the product students sell. It's a bit crazy, I agree.

Stop the scholarship and UF's ranking drops substantially as does the students' ability to find jobs.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your overall point that scholarship contributes to rank, which determines the value of our degree. However, that still leaves the question of how valuable scholarship at a particular school actually is. To the extent that quality scholarship increases school rank and prestige, it is a benefit to students. However, has any tenured faculty member ever been fired for not producing enough quality scholarship? Since faculty have tenure and are essentially accountable to no one, students and taxpayers are paying for a system where quality scholarship may or may not be being produced, and may or may not be increasing the value of their degree. That being said, I agree with your point and I guess my response criticizes tenure and unaccountability more than it does legal scholarship.

I would say that I think this reiterates my point that students in public law schools may be receiving a subsidized education, but that requires an analysis of individuals schools, and not a blanket statement about all public law schools. Two other responses:

"First, at least ideally, scholarship and teaching are not as separate as you suggest."
-This assumes quality teaching. Just like in every group, some law professors shirk their responsibilities. This principle applies everywhere but it is especially relevant here where, in the case of bad teaching by law professors, students are not only paying for the bad teaching, but the scholarship that failed to help the faculty member develop into a strong teacher.

"Following your logic, in fact, professors who do not write would be paid 30% of the norm, but in fact those who do not write are often engaged in research in order to simply keep up with their fields."
-This ignores tenure, the fact that faculty self-governs, and assumes real accountability for Professors.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

I am glad you wrote back. If you have read any of my other blogs you know we are not that far apart. It is true that the state and the students subsidize some faculty.

I do want to correct one thing and then make a couple of additional comments. Even if I agreed there was a scholarship teaching split, you might be surprised at how much more than 30% the students get. In addition to class and preparation and writing exams and grading them there are hours spend advising students, writing letters on behalf of students, reading drafts for students and on and on.

In response to some of your comments. As I have written before, law professors publish over 7000 article a year and I think the vast majority are unnecessary except to hold a school's place in the rankings which is for the students.

On quality teaching. I think students and professors probably disagree on what is good teaching. My preference would be to ask students to rank professors 5 years after graduation in order to determined which ones seemed good at the time and which ones actually helped in their profession.

I do not know if this is directly relevant to our discussion but it's not that easy to determine which faculty are not productive. I used to label any professor who was not writing as not earning his or her pay. Then I realized some of the smartest and best informed professors I knew were not writing.They were actually excellent scholars, just not writing it down. They contribute greatly to the quality of a school.I am not saying the subsidization of tenured professors does not exist but just that it is a more nuanced question that writing or not writing.

But, you ultimately right about the lack of accountability. In fact, you may understate it. You may want to have a look at an article I wrote a couple of years ago about what I call law professor shirking. I can't remember the exact title right now but if you put Harrison & shirking in westlaw you will find it and you will see that with your last comment, we are pretty darn close.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the response. I would add one more thing in regards to quality teaching, from a student's perspective. It's not on point with our original discussion but it goes to something you mentioned.

I do agree that faculty and students can disagree on what is quality teaching, and you are not the first professor I have heard suggest that evaluations would be more useful if done 5 years after graduation. For most professors, where there can be reasonable disagreement about the efficacy of their teaching style, it very well may be the case that students and professors just disagree on what good teaching should be.

However, there are some professors (not many by any means) where it is obvious to anyone awake in the classroom that the professor is not even making an attempt to be a competent teacher. It's truly shocking. There are no other professors in the room when one professor is teaching. Sometimes I wonder if other faculty have any idea that another member of faculty is so completely ignoring their responsibility.

Its not common by any means, but there are one or two true shirkers in every group, including law faculties, and I guess this just goes to that point. I think that if you surveyed a given student body to ask which professors completely fail to make a good faith effort to be a good teacher, the same one or two names would come up across the survey.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

When it rises (or falls) to that levels the students need to do more that allow the evaluations to speak for them. It is important to join with a few others and make a visit to Associate Dean Page.

smith said...

I do agree that faculty and students can disagree on what is quality teaching, and you are not the first professor I have heard suggest that evaluations would be more useful if done 5 years after graduation.

legal education